Local recurrence of colorectal cancer after 'curative' surgery is a major clinical problem. Typically, 50-70 per cent of patients presenting to a surgical clinic will undergo apparently curative surgery for disease and of these about 10-25 per cent will develop local recurrence, in either the tumour bed or bowel wall. The wide differences in local recurrence rate both between and within institutions is probably caused by variation in surgical technique. The main causes of local recurrence are inadequate excision of the primary tumour or the draining lymph nodes, and intraoperative tumour cell implantation. The most significant single factor prognostic of local recurrence is Dukes' tumour stage. Other important factors include tumour grade and fixity, level of the tumour in the rectum, blood and lymphatic vessel invasion, inadvertent perforation of the tumour during resection, and the surgeon's experience. The prognosis of patients with local recurrence is poor. Prevention of recurrence by adequate surgery and adjuvant therapy as well as its early detection offer the best prospect of improving results.